The Medaillers Of Saint Helene
By Dominique Contant, FINS
The last thoughts of Napoleon, on his deathbed, were for his 'sons,' the soldiers of the Grande Armée, with his last understandable words 'Which moves back?' and 'At the head... of the army...' After the death of the Emperor what provision had France made for its former soldiers? There were the 'secours viagers' (help for life), but only a relatively small number of the survivors profited from it. Some of Napoleon's Marshals and Generals knew how to make their career during the Bourbon restoration. But during the years which followed the Imperial Épopée the greatest part of the veterans lived forgotten and in misery.
Institution of the Medal
Napoleon III, grandson of Joséphine and nephew of Napoleon, decided in 1857 to create the medal of Saint Helene. He had been certainly inspired by the medal created by the Queen Victoria for the expeditionary force in the Baltic and Crimean War. The decree of August 12, 1857 established the creation of a decoration, called 'Saint Hélène medal,' for all the veterans of the wars of the Revolution and the Empire, i.e., the campaigns from 1792 to 1815.
The orders were quickly given to the prefects of the departments who would communicate them to the mayors. It asked for the establishment of a list of all the former soldiers with surname, first name, age, profession, and campaigns in which the soldiers served during the Republic and the Empire. If the candidate did not have any corroborating papers, he should indicate the number of his regiment, as well as the date of his incorporation to be analyzed by the services of the Ministry of War. Some prefects gave the mayors precise instructions for the completion of their task, others did not. Because of that some lists were very incomplete.
The medal itself included on one side: 'To his companions of glory - his last thought - Ste Helene May 5, 1821.' On the other side was the profile of Napoleon with the inscription 'Napoleon I - Emperor.' The medal eventually would be bestowed on the 390,000 veterans still alive in 1857.
Reconstitution of the Database
Unfortunately the hotel of Salm, where the records were kept, burned on May 24/25, 1871 and the files on the medal were lost. By chance, however, each department had preserved their files and thanks to hundreds of volunteers in Belgium, France and the Danish National Archives it was possible to reconstitute most of these files. As of today approximately 40% of the files have been reconstituted.
Mr. Philippe Ramona, webmaster of the online site for the records of the medal-holders, has kindly authorized the Napoleon Series to reproduce in this article part of this work. The site and the database can be consulted at: http://stehelene.geneactes.org
The examination of the database can be useful for the historians. These records will allow us to give a more precise answer as to the number of participants of the wars of the Empire and on the composition of the Grande Armé';e, including the age and the origin of Napoleon's soldiers. The curious will be able to find their ancestors; military historians can better understand the army's regiments, their evolution, and their participation in the campaigns.
Below are some sample statistics for the Department of Haute Vienne:
The region of Limousin gave France Marshals Jourdan and Brune, General Souham, and the future Marshal Bugeaud, who was present as corporal at Austerlitz.
Average age - The oldest was a surgeon of the 7th of the Gironde - 148th Demi-Brigade - 34th Demi-Brigade then with the 34th Line, who served from 14 August 1792 to 29 Brumaire Year 11. He was 92 years old in 1857.
The average age of the 116 veterans who declared their age was 69 years, the greatest part having been born in 1792 or 1793 (therefore 64 or 65 years old in 1857). For 76 of them I could reconstitute the age of incorporation, the average age being 20 years and 6 months. Some dates seem suspect, such as that of Léonard Moissannes, born in 1793 and enlisted (enrôlé) in 1804 (at 11 years!). Although very young, some enlistments seem plausible, one, for instance, who joined the 29th Chasseurs-à-Cheval at 15 years (1814). The oldest enlistee was 27 years old.
Professions - Most of the veterans were farmers. A sergeant of the 24th Line captured at Macon by the Austrians on 10 July 1815, and who escaped on 28 July of the same year, went on to become university professor.
The number of wounded still alive in 1857 is impressive, for example, Martial Desplanches, a farmer born in 1788, who was a Chasseur-à-Pied in the 3rd Regiment of the Young Guard and found at Waterloo in the middle of the dead, his nose cut in two parts. Jean Aubazat, born in 1789, brigadier of the 4th Line Infantry Regiment, was also found among dead at Waterloo, stripped naked by the English. (The French did the same to the dead.)
One can only guess at the terrible sufferings that they had gone through, such as that of François Rouvery, a tailor, fusilier who served in the 93rd and 19th Line Infantry Regiments, and later in the 16th, who had his feet and hands frozen and was wounded on the right arm and on the left side at the crossing of 'la Bérézina'. Or of J. Baptiste Bouchaud, of the 1st Light Infantry Regiment, farm owner, , wounded at Vilna, first by a ball on the left hand, then in the left thigh and finally the right testicle, which was perforated by the same ball. The mayor specified by letter that the 'scar was still visible,' without specifying which one. One of the most impressive is Philippe Jacques Bammés, of the 10th Hussars, wounded twenty-two times, and who could cover himself in glory for the capture of an artillery pice at Donnerwerthe in 1805, for a flag at Iéna in 1807, and in 1810 a cavalry colonel and a gun at Campemajor. 'One is not braver than this soldier.' Bammés was nicknamed the 'Patriot' said the mayor.
Others are truly miraculous, like Gerard Lallement, born in 1787, of the 4th Line, supposedly killed in Russia, but who was a prisoner of the Russians and who reappeared 3 years later. He later served with the 51st Line. One finds many prisoners of the Russian campaign or veterans of the Berezina (Borizans, as say some). Some had more luck, such as Claude Clement, born in 1787, a voltigeur of the 14th Regiment of light infantry, who waswounded by a sabre blow in the arm and imprisoned in Russia, but succeeded in escaping. Or Isaac Blum, a soldier in the 6th Artillery, who was a prisoner for four years in Russia, from 1812 to 1816.
The capitulation of Dupont at Baylen in Spain, July 20, 1808, was one of the hardest blows for Napoleon during his disastrous campaigns in Spain. The French officers who returned to France - Dupont and Vedel would be later court-martialed for having capitulated and for abandoning their troops. But the saddest fate would be reserved to the 5500 soldiers, initially held on hulks at Cadiz, then on a small rocky islet in the Balearics known as Cabréra. Only 2000 to 3000 were repatriated in 1814, some walking skeletons and some out of their minds.
It is thus with surprise that 47 years later one finds 21 veterans who had survived this hell. Guillaume Louis Menial, born in 1788, served in the 1st Legion of the Reserves of the Interior, and was made prisoner at the battle of 'Bayleu (?)' in Spain (certainly the capitulation of Baylen), who survived six years on Cabrera (from 1808 to 1814). We can imagine that all the officers did not share the same fate, such as Jean Louis Marie Boudet, a second lieutenant in the 122nd Line Infantry Regiment. He became a prisoner after Baylen, but escaped on 10 May 1810. Some facts give us shivers like Joseph Mercadier, born in 1798, enfant de troupe, made prisoner at Anvers in 1814 and sent to the prison hulks until 1815 (that is to say until 16 years of age).
The amateur historian will find in the list many anecdotes, such as that of Antoine Planchette, soldier of the 3rd Company, 3rd Battalion of the 37th Line Infantry Regiment who killed an enemy spy during the retreat from Russia and was made prisoner at Waterloo after having received a sabre blow to the head. He remained a prisoner 7 months in England. Charles François Dupont, born on March 28, 1789, a corporal in the 48th Line and the 3rd Battalion of Voltigeurs, was called out of the ranks by a general to receive the cross of the Legion of Honor after capturing 'some' guns ('quelques canons') of the enemy. Some stories are sad like that of Claude Charlot, who first served in the 1st Company, 1st Gendarme Battalion, and became an officer in the 21st Light Infantry Regiment, was made prisoner at Badajoz and thought a deserter. A 'mobile column' (French 'militar police') went to his house, destroyed it and dispersed all.
One can also find humor sometimes. Raymond Bourbonneau, soldier of the 3rd Regiment of Sappers, then in the regiment of light infantry to the 6th Lancers, to declare seriously, 'At Fleurus, [I] received some wounds but...not mortal.' To prove his honesty, Jean Baptiste Adrien Guilbert, soldier with the 8th Chasseurs-à-Cheval declared that he refused to serve 'the Female of the Bourbons.' Antoine Maisonhaute, born in 1794, corporal with the 29th Line produced a certificate of non-payment of 40,50 francs for 90 days service in 1814 as a corporal. At the time of his complaint, under the Restoration, the government answered him 'That it will be paid when Napoleon returns to the throne!' Another demand was that of Jean Anselme Denis who refused to accept the medal as long as the government had not refunded 43,50 francs due to him for dismissal in 1815.
The desire of the historian is great in trying to find the combatants of the great battles of the era. François Lamarre, born in 1772, fought at the battle of Valmy with the 16th Dragons 'ci-devant '3rd Squadron Orleans, then at Fleurus and Maubeuge. I found also Antoine Salvi Albenge of the 26th Dragoons and the 14th Chasseurs, wounded in the head at the battle of the Bridge of Arcole. He certainly knew the 'little corporal.' After the first Italian campaign, Jean Baptiste Lacroix, born in 1773, was in the 2nd Company of Grenadiers, 2nd Battalion of the 61st Line was at the battle of the Pyramids in Egypt. Pierre Motte, 78 years in 1857, corporal fourrier in the 17th Demi-Brigade of Light Infantry (3é Cie battalion of carabiniers chasseurs) received a piece of shrapnel in the head at Marengo and lost his hearing. The only survivor of the Consular Guard that I found was Hubert Chanaux, born in 1772. But he does not tell to us if the Guard had been a 'block of granite' at Marengo. Pierre Descat saw the combat of Trafalgar aboard the frigate Cornélie.
For many, Waterloo was still 'the Mont Saint Jean affair' - hundreds of survivors, many having been made prisoners after the battle, were poor in 1857. Louis Gasdon, 5th Battalion of Grenadier-à-Pied of the Imperial Guard, was at Waterloo under the command of Cambronne. He probably saw the legendary last square of the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Chasseurs with General Cambronne in the middle.
What a Life!
Certain records of service are like a dream. Consider Joseph Duguenot, born in 1774, chief of tje battalion of the mythical 1st Grenadiers of the Old Guard. His campaigns included: Egypt, Germany, Russia, Waterloo, and the Island of Elba. Equally impressive was the service of Jean Louis Marie Boudet, born 3 October 1780, who served as a second lieutenant in the 18th Demi-Brigade of the Line, the Imperial Guard, the 4th Legion, and the122nd Line Regiment. He entered the service with the 18th Demi-Brigade on 10 Frimaire Year II and joined the Imperial Guard on 2 May 1802. He served as a corporal from 20 February 1805,and was made surgeon on 17 March 1806. He was a second lieutenant with the 4th Legion, which became the 122nd Line Regiment on 28 March 1807. Boudet's campaigns include those of the Years II, III, IV and V in Italy, the years VI, VII, VIII and IX in Egypt, the Years XII and XIII at Boulogne. In the Year XIV and in 1806 Boudet served with the Grande Armée in Germany, part of 1806 and 1807 in Prussia and Poland against the Russians. In 1808, 1810, and 1811 he was in Spain. Boudet was wounded by a shot on the right side of the arm at St Jean of Acre, wounded by a shot on the upper part of 'occipital' at Alexandria, and wounded by a shot on the upper posterior part of the left leg at Baylen in Spain. A prisoner of war at Baylen on 19 July 1808, he escaped on 10 May 1810. Boudet received a well-deserved Legion of Honor on 8 January 1805. If he had could write his memoirs! Other information is surprising like that of Blaise Poirot of the 96th Line following Napoleon at Ste. Helene and living the island in 1819!
François Lacroix, born in 1792, sergeant, having participated in the campaigns of Germany (Lutzen, Botzen, Dresden, Leipzick, Hanau) and of France required that should be noted that his 10th Hussars was called: 'Hussars of Death' ('les hussards de la mort'). The soldiers also gave each other nicknames: Laurent Meyer of the 4th Fusilier Regiment of the Young Guard was known as 'le tricoteur', Jean Joseph Charlier, born in Liege, Belgium, of the 1st Company, 4th Battalion of the 69th Line Regiment was called 'wooden leg' ('jambe de bois'). The Prussian Jean Godefroi Krings, of the 26th Chasseurs-à-Cheval of the 5th Corps of Cavalry under the Junot was the 'knight Krings' ('le chevalier Krings').
Were there Mamelukes in 1857? Yes, Boulous Baraqua, born 17 May 1786 in Alexandria, Egypt),was a Mameluke of the Guard who had seen service in Egypt, Russia, Prussia, Italy, and Spain.
Charles Hetzel, born in Prussia, chef of music to the 115th Line enlisted during the battle of Iéna and served until 1814. There were also Poles like Jean Colacoski or Joseph Chodastoski of the 1st Polish Lancers. There were the Germans like Mathias Chachtner, of the 22nd Line, born in 1784 in Bavaria, who fought in Spain, Austria, Italy, and Russia; made prisoner at Saragossa, he was taken along to England. There were even Spaniards like Michel Dezelu Fernandez, 74 years, a Spanish prisoner, enrolled under the French flag with the 8th Sappers in 1812. François Alvarez Cienfuego, born in Madrid, an inhabitant of Limoges, had enlisted on 18 September 1814 in the Regiment of Castille. The prefect disputed the decoration by underlining that his commitment of 1814 was rather a rédition. Alvarez was however awarded the medal on the 14 August 1858. One finds also a certain Charles Godefroi Geysen, born in 1781 in Maastricht (Netherlands) and naturalized French, he began with the 6th Chasseurs-à-Cheval on the 1 Germinal Year XI and ended as captain of the 8th Dragoons.
From now will be some months before the database will be completed, when it is we will have a great tool for better knowing those that Edmond Rostand called in his play The Eaglet, the 'littles,' the obscure ones, the 'without ranks.'
Placed on the Napoleon Series: January, 2001
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